Salvos Withering on the Vine

A tale of two democracies

Thomas Frank

Were you to draw a Venn diagram of Democrats, meritocrats, and plutocrats, the space where they intersect would be an island seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts called Martha’s Vineyard.

A little bit smaller in area than Staten Island but many times greater in stately magnificence, Martha’s Vineyard is a resort whose population swells each summer as the wealthy return to their vacation villas. It is a place of yachts and celebrities and fussy topiary, of waterfront mansions and Ivy League professors and closed-off beaches. It is also a place of moral worthiness, as we understand it circa 2016. The people relaxing on the Vineyard’s rarefied sand are not lazy toffs like the billionaires of old; in fact, according to the Washington Post, they have “far higher IQs than the average beachgoer.” It is an island that deserves what it has. Some of its well-scrubbed little towns are decorated in Puritan severity, some in fanciful Victorian curlicues, but always and everywhere they are clad in the unmistakable livery of righteous success.

It is ever so liberal. This is Massachusetts, after all, and the markers of lifestyle enlightenment are all around you: Foods that are organic. Clothing that is tasteful. A conspicuous absence of cigarette butts.

Here it is not enough to have a surgically precise garden of roses and topiary in the three-foot strip between your carefully whitewashed house and the picket fence out front; the garden must be accessorized with a sign letting passersby know that “this is a chemical-free Vineyard lawn, safe for children, pets, and ponds.”

It is ever so privileged, ever so private. This is not Newport or Fifth Avenue, where the rich used to display their good taste to the world; the Martha’s Vineyard mansions that you read about in the newspapers are for the most part hidden away behind massive hedges and long, winding driveways. Even the beaches of the rich are kept separate from the general public—they are private right down to the low-tide line and often accessible only through locked gates, a gracious peculiarity of Massachusetts law that is found almost nowhere else in America.

Over the last few decades, this island has become the standard vacation destination for high-ranking Democratic officials. Bill Clinton started the trend in 1993 and then proceeded to return to Martha’s Vineyard every year of his presidency but two—after presidential puppet master Dick Morris took a poll and convinced Bill it would be more in keeping with the mood of the country if the First Family visited a National Park instead.

Barack Obama, the next Democrat to occupy the White House, mimicked Clinton in policy decisions and personnel choices, and so it made sense to do exactly as his predecessor had done when it came to selecting vacation destinations. Obama, too, spent all his presidential holidays on Martha’s Vineyard with one exception: the year he ran for reelection and needed to burnish his populist image. Making the connection between the two presidents even more cozy are details such as the following: the Martha’s Vineyard estate where Obama stayed in the summer of 2013 belonged to one David Schulte, a corporate investment adviser and Clinton intimate who met Bill at Oxford and Hillary at Yale, where Schulte was editor of the Yale Law Journal.

People on Martha’s Vineyard sometimes say that politicians choose to vacation among them because the residents here are so blasé about celebrity that it’s no big deal. A president can just ride his bike down the street and no one cares. It’s a nice thought, but I suspect the real reasons Democratic politicians like to come here are even simpler. First of all, there’s security. Martha’s Vineyard is an island; it is remote by definition and difficult to travel to. People in many parts of the country have never even heard of it.

Then there’s the money. What has sanctified the name of Martha’s Vineyard among Democratic politicians are the countless deeds of fundraising heroism that have graced the island’s manicured golf courses, its quaint hotels, and its architecturally celebrated interiors. During the summer season, when the island’s billionaires return like swallows to the fabulous secluded coastal estates they own, there are fundraisers every night of the week. Often these are thrown for the benefit of worthy charitable causes, not politicians, but of course, it is the political fundraisers that make the headlines.

Political fundraisers for Democrats, that is. In terms of partisanship, everyone is pretty much on the same page here. The only contest in recent years to cause the billionaires of Martha’s Vineyard to feel pangs of political unease was in 2007, when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were hitting the sweet spot of the liberal class. Both politicians showed up here to raise money, sometimes within a few days of one another. Who would line up with whom? Tensions ran high. Tycoon turned against tycoon.

On Martha’s Vineyard, declared the New York Times, the presidential race “is dividing old loyalties, testing longtime friendships and causing a few awkward moments at the island’s many dinner parties.” It was a difficult time for rich people everywhere, the paper allowed; vacationers were squabbling “at summer communities around the country from the Hamptons to Harbor Springs, Mich. But perhaps nowhere is the intensity as great as on the Vineyard because of its history, the pedigree of its residents and those residents’ proximity to power.”

In the summer of 2015, all that fratricidal stuff was over. Both the Obamas and the Clintons would again show up on the island, but the mood was a happy one. This time, Hillary Clinton’s fundraising operations could proceed without any real competition. Both first families would go peacefully to Vernon Jordan’s birthday party, an important event in the Democratic calendar, and Bill and Barack would even play a round of golf together. And Hillary would be the beneficiary of a fundraiser cosponsored by her admirer, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, an honest-to-god member of Europe’s most famous family of Gilded Age banker-aristocrats.

The Idea of an Island

These are the events that shape our collective future, but as I learned when I visited Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2015, trying to see them with your own eyes is a quest of singular futility. Unless you are prepared to plunk down the cash, you will need Google Earth or Architectural Digest to find out what the fundraising locations look like.

It is a place of waterfront mansions and Ivy League professors and closed-off beaches. It is also a place of moral worthiness, as we understand it circa 2016.

As I toured the island, I made a point of going into every shop that boasted some obvious presidential connection—a picture of the Clintons in the window, for example, or a sandwich named after Barack Obama. I visited the bookstore in which both presidents reportedly like to shop. I found out what Obama orders when he goes to a certain seafood restaurant. I visited one of the many outposts of the Black Dog chain, where Bill Clinton bought souvenirs for his young-adult paramour, Monica Lewinsky. Sitting on the deck at a popular presidential restaurant in Oak Bluff, I eavesdropped as two children, probably ages six and seven, argued about whether or not owning a yacht was a “ginormous waste of money.”

And I kept noticing all the stuff they sell on this island that serves no purpose other than to announce that you set foot in this place of rarefied privilege. That you rode a certain ferry. That you—or your presidential boyfriend—visited a certain store.

It is, I suppose, a logical extension of the hyper-preppy sartorial style that strikes you when you’re here: the polo shirts, the khakis, the madras shorts, and basically anything sold by Vineyard Vines, the clothing brand whose beau ideal seems to be a gilded young layabout who’s washed out of some Ivy League school and now spends his days drinking beer on his dad’s yacht.

Indeed, the island’s culture is so deeply suffused with this kind of ruling-class-rebel taste that even the rock musicians show up for gigs in pastel shirts, white trousers, and those light-colored cotton sweaters people wear to go sailing. OK, I admit, I’m basing this observation exclusively on one data point: the musicians who appeared in a 1987 TV concert featuring island resident Carly Simon, the one in which she’s playing her best-known songs on a Martha’s Vineyard beach as the seagulls wheel overhead and a man dressed like a Dartmouth professor on sabbatical bangs a cowbell for all he’s worth.

In another old TV show, this one from 1997, you can watch this same Carly Simon pronounce her friend Bill Clinton to be “the first rock ‘n’ roll president,” recalling how he went to Georgetown in the sixties and was thus present for his generation’s important musical and political moments. As she speaks these words, Simon also notes that she is seated in the very chair and in the very house in which Clinton sat and stayed while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard.

This is nauseating, but it’s not wrong. There is something about all the items Carly Simon throws together here—boomers, fancy colleges, rock ‘n’ roll, Bill Clinton, a billionaire’s vacation spot—that makes a kind of deep sense.

After all, Bill Clinton didn’t need to take a poll to know to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. For a man of his educational and generational background, that was an obvious choice. That was where everybody went. It was the place where the high-achieving, rock ‘n’ rolling generation that Bill led came together with the money people whose wisdom he and his well-graduated cohort had grown to understand.

Amazing Grace

In a humorous story published in 1975, at the very beginning of the Martha’s Vineyard boom, Tom Wolfe tells how “Media & Lit. people” from New York had started vacationing on the island, and how they were initially shunned by the flamboyantly preppy “Boston people” who then dominated the resort’s summer scene. But then the two groups start to mingle, and a sort of revelation comes. At a cocktail party one day in the mid-1970s, Wolfe’s narrator, an unnamed New York author, sees “a glimmer of the future”:

something he could barely make out . . . a vision in which America’s best minds, her intellectuals, found a common ground, a natural unity, with the enlightened segments of her old aristocracy, her old money . . . the two groups bound together by . . . but by what? . . . he could almost see it, but not quite . . . it was presque vu . . . it was somehow a matter of taste . . . of sensibility . . . of grace, natural grace.

Wolfe doesn’t mention the fantasy of an all-powerful “creative class” or the universal liberal conviction that you must have a degree from a “good school” to make any sort of legitimate claim on the affluent life; those toxic doctrines would take decades to develop.

But in some ways the Vineyard idea, as Wolfe sketched it out forty years ago, undergirds them all. The union of money and talent, under a veil of righteousness furnished by the backwash of the sixties counterculture, allowed our left party (such as it is) to walk away from its historic obligations to working people.

Our Martha’s Vineyard Democrats like to talk about inequality. It makes them sad, but it’s also a problem they have almost no desire to tackle. Not only does it not touch them personally, but their instincts, their inclinations, and their deepest unspoken convictions tell them it isn’t a real problem to begin with. People get what they deserve out of life—or, rather, they will get what they deserve once we have ensured everyone’s equal access to the SAT—and for a person with a grade-school education to complain about the hardships of minimum-wage work is the purest sort of folly.

Today, the melding of money and the literary sensibility is, in certain circles, an accomplished fact, and sometimes the perversity of the thing is capable of slapping you right in the face. I am reminded of this as I stroll through one of the polished and manicured towns on Martha’s Vineyard and wander into one of those places selling reproductions of old T-shirts and sports memorabilia and the like. On the outside wall of the shop hangs a poem by Charles Bukowski, because of course nothing goes better with tasteful clothing than transgressive poetry. The poem is about the horror of blue-collar life, about how dehumanizing it is to do the kind of work that no one who passes by here ever does anymore:

I think of the men
I’ve known in
factories
with no way to
get out—
choking while living
choking while laughing

The Land That Liberals Forgot

When I think of the men I’ve known in factories, I think of a group of striking workers I met in Decatur, Illinois, in the early days of the Clinton administration. Although those workers were “out,” they weren’t particularly interested in staying out; they would have been happy to go back in, provided their jobs were safe and paid well. They wanted to live what we used to think of as ordinary, middle-class lives.

In a scholarly paper about social class published in 1946, the sociologist C. Wright Mills focused his attention on Decatur, which he believed to be a perfectly typical Midwestern city. According to the data he had compiled, “big business owners and executives” in Decatur in those days earned a little more than two times as much as the town’s “wage workers” did.

Mills might as well have been talking about the days of Julius Caesar, to judge by how far we have come since then. In 2014 the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, a company that dominates the city of Decatur, earned an estimated 261 times as much as did average wage workers, according to the AFL-CIO’s “Executive Paywatch” website. The CEO of Caterpillar, the focus of one of the 1994 Decatur conflicts, made 486 times as much. Caterpillar’s share price is roughly ten times what it was in the early 1990s.

Other demographic changes to sweep that town since it gained notoriety as the Clinton-era “War Zone” for militant strike actions are just as familiar, just as awful. For one thing, Decatur’s population has shrunk by about 12 percent since the early 1990s. Despite this outflow of people, as of early 2015 the place still had the highest unemployment rate in Illinois. As a few minutes of Internet clicking will tell you, Decatur’s own citizens now rank their town extremely low on certain quality-of-life metrics; in a photographic guide to Decatur meant to promote tourism, the photographer recounts being threatened in a park while taking pictures.

The two-class system that those men-in-factories had arrayed themselves against back in 1994 has pretty much come to pass. Today, everyone knows how Wall Street salaries soar under all conditions while pay for average workers never goes anywhere. Everyone knows that the people on top get bailed out when they screw up while everyone else goes to the wall. To look at it more narrowly, the two-tiered system the Caterpillar workers were protesting has since been installed in numerous workplaces across the country; as a result, younger workers will never catch up to the pay earned by their seniors no matter how many years they log on the job.

Our Martha’s Vineyard Democrats like to talk about inequality. It makes them sad, but it’s also a problem they have almost no desire to tackle.

I went back to Decatur in 2015 to catch up with the veterans of the War Zone, and drove along the route of a huge 1994 protest march organized to support the strikes. Back then, this gathering of pissed-off workers and their allies had seemed to my younger self to be the augur of a great labor-left uprising—a moment to seize liberalism from the technocratic apostles of the “third way” who were then vacationing among the musicians and the millionaires on Martha’s Vineyard.

This time around, though, the derelict sights of Decatur brought enlightenment of a different sort, as I drove past block after block of deteriorating bungalows, with wrecks in the driveway and trash in the yards. I noticed pawn shops, payday loan franchises, and thrift stores everywhere.

Not all is disaster, of course. Decatur’s downtown has been extensively rehabbed with cute new restaurants and plenty of parking. And even though the town’s population is shrinking, its single largest corporate citizen seems to grow and grow. Archer Daniels Midland, the grain-processing behemoth, now sprawls across block after block.

Larry Solomon was the leader of the local United Auto Workers union at Decatur’s Caterpillar plant during the War Zone days. He hired in at Caterpillar, he tells me, in 1963; he retired in 1998, having gone back in after the strike ended. When I met Solomon in his tidy suburban home in a small town outside Decatur, he told me in detail about the many times he got crossways with management in days long past, about all the grievances he filed for his coworkers over the years and the puffed-up company officials he faced down.

Think about that for a moment: a blue-collar worker who has retired fairly comfortably, despite having spent years confronting his employer on picket lines and in grievance hearings. How is such a thing possible? I know we’re all supposed to show nothing but love for the creative class and the job creators nowadays, but listening to Solomon’s tales of these many forgotten showdowns, it occurred to me that maybe his semi-adversarial attitude worked better. Maybe it was that attitude, repeated in workplace after workplace across the country, that made possible the middle-class prosperity that once marked us as a nation—and that we have lost today.

“We were promised, all during the time we worked at Caterpillar, that when you retire, you’re going to have a pension and full benefits at no cost to you,” Solomon recalled. He told about a round of contract negotiations he and his colleagues attended in the 1960s during which a management official complained, “We already take care of you from the cradle to the grave. What more could you want?”

Today, it is inconceivable that an American official of any kind, public or private, would utter such a phrase. In this age of disruption and innovation, everything pushes in the opposite direction. For the generation coming up now, the old social contract is gone—or at least the part of it that ensured health care and retirement for blue-collar workers. Now, as Solomon sees it, companies can say, “We want your life, and when your work life is over, then goodbye. We thank you for your life, but we’re not responsible for you after we turn you out.” At which point, presumably, they head east for a relaxing summer on the Vineyard.

 

This essay is adapted from Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books, 2016). Excerpt from “The Meek Have Inherited” is from Love Is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974–1977 by Charles Bukowski. Copyright © 1977 by Charles Bukowski. By permission of HarperCollins Publishers.